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Thursday, April 13, 1989

Maple tappin' time
You can make syrup from trees in backyard

By Mark Sakry
For the News-Tribune

The moon, though slight, was moon enough to show
On every tree a bucket with a lid.
And on the ground a bear-skin rug of snow

Robert Frost,
Evening in a Sugar Orchard

The Chippewa call the maple ninautuk (our own tree), and they may rightfully claim it, for the Indians were the first to harvest maple sugarcenturies before Europeans came to this continent.  It was a joyful event, and families united on forays to the sugar bush each spring to fill birch-bark makuks with the sugar they processed there.
With a few simple items from home, you can also engage in the annual sugar harvest.  And if you have even two or three maple trees in your vicinity, you can produce syrup … right in your own backyard.

Maple sugar moon
    In northern Minnesota the maple syruping season usually begins in mid-March, when warming days are followed by freezing nights and large patches of snow seem to linger on the ground.  These daily temperature fluctuations, along with increasing periods of daylight, tend to generate sap flow.
    The run often lasts about a month, so there still might be time for you to get in a bit of tapping this season, depending upon conditions in your area.
    You may see dark stains where sap weeps naturally from scars in trees—sometimes it actually "rains" on you from the treetops.
    Various maples, including boxelder, can be tapped.  But the sap of the sugar maple offers the highest concentration of sugar.  Birch also produces sugar, but so much less than maple that twice as much sap is needed to make the same amount of syrup.
    Trees with high, open canopies are the best sugar producers.  Good exposure to summer sun helps build starch reserves, which are ultimately converted to sugar during the rapid-growth period of early spring (this is the sugar you collect).   Hence, city maples—which do not compete for sunlight as forest trees do—often produce more syrup.
    Sap flow varies from day to day and tree to tree.  Many claim that flow is heaviest during the full moon—a period the Chippewa call ee skee guh mee see gay gee zis (maple sugar moon).

Tappin' time
    Use a carpenter's brace or drill fitted with a wood bit to bore your tap-holes.  The size of your bit should be the same diameter as the spiles (spouts) you will insert for taps.  Spiles can be made from 5/8- or 3/4-inch clear plastic tubing, available at most hardware stores, and should run right from your tap-hole to your collecting jug on the ground.
    Only tap trees that are at least 10 inches wide at the base; larger trees will tolerate additional taps (as many as three for a 24-inch maple).
    Bore each tap-hole 2 to 3 inches deep—at a slight upward angle to the trunk—about a foot or two above the ground.  Locate taps directly above the largest roots on sunny sides of trees for best yield.
    One-gallon plastic milk jugs make ideal collectors because they are lightweight and won't break when sap freezes; rain won't enter them; and you can see how full they are at a glance.
    Spiles should be cut in lengths extending a few inches inside each collector.  Cut the end that goes into the tree at a 45 degree angle and insert it "mouth up" to better collect sap.  Make sure each spile's fit is snug to prevent leakage.

Gathering sap
    If you've never seen maple sap before, don't be surprised when your collectors fill with a clear liquid.  Maple sap is not dark, as many assume.  Nor is it syrupy.  It is thin and clear like water.  When you taste it, however, it is indeed sweet—even though much boiling is needed to reduce it to a rich syrup.  It usually takes roughly 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.
At the beginning of the season the sugar content of the sap is at its highest, which means that only about 20 to 30 gallons of sap are needed to make one gallon of syrup.
    A forest maple will produce as little as eight gallons of sap in one season—a city tree, if it is large and well-exposed to the sun, as much as 100.   Hence, a few good trees in your own yard may produce enough sap to make a gallon or two of syrup.
    As collectors fill, transfer the sap to a larger storage container (a clean, unused plastic garbage pail with a snap-on lid works nicely—until you're ready to boil it down.  Sap gets cloudy if it sits too long, so don't wait more than a day or two to boil it.  Keep your storage container "on ice"—out of the sun—on the north side of your house.
    A five gallon platic pail or carboy works well for gathering and shuttling sap.

The evaporator
    Sap can be boiled-down right on your kitchen stove, but be sure you have a good fan on your range that vents exhaust to the outside.  Otherwise your walls will be dripping with moisture.
For the more industrious, a makeshift wood-burning fireplace can be made out of cement blocks in the backyard.  Use the top and bottom of an old roasting pan as a "double" evaporator (you can preheat sap in one, then ladel it into the other as the sap boils down).  But any large, flat metal pan will work.
    Scrap sheet metal can be fitted around the pan(s) on top, and across the top-front of the fireplace, to conserve heat and create draft for your fire.

Boiling down
    There's nothing complicated about making maple syrup.  When you boil sap, water evaporates and sugar remains.  You add nothing to it.
    As it boils, sap gradually darkens and foam forms on top.  Skim the foam off periodically with a coffee strainer to clarify syrup.  Keep adding sap to the evaporator as syrup reduces.
    Depending on how much sap you collect, boiling can take many hours.   It's all right to cool partially boiled syrup in the evaporator overnight for continued boiling later.  As long as it will hold it, you can keep adding sap to the same batch of syrup in your evaporator for the entire season.  But be sure it's covered whenever you leave it, and resume boiling within a day or two.

Finishing off
    During the final stages of boiling, syrup will start to thicken very quickly.  It must be watched very closely at this point to prevent burning or boiling over.  Hence, the "finishing off" process is best performed on a kitchen stove where heat is easily controlled.   A four-gallon canning kettle works well.  Syrup should be stirred constantly during this critical stage.
    Syrup is done when it reaches a temperature of 7 degrees above the boiling point of water (compensating for altitude).  By the "seat of the pants" method it's done when it runs off your spoon in thin ribbons, as in jelly-making.
    Strain finished syrup through multiple folds of cheesecloth then transfer to sterilized jars with air-sealed lids.  Refrigerated, or processed for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath, maple syrup will keep almost indefinitely.
    At the end of the maple run, plug tap-holes with wooden dowels fashioned from a maple branch.

Copyright C. Mark Sakry 1989

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